Camden Arts Centre to 29 August
It was with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation that I ventured to the first art exhibition I have seen since lockdown began in March 2020. My trepidation was soon overcome. Camden Arts Centre now sports a giant outdoor canopy for those who want coffee or lunch in the open air. The garden has been tidied up with many wonderful flowers. A new gate, opening directly onto Finchley Road, means that there is no need to be inside at all after you have viewed the art.
In addition to an installation by local special needs schoolchildren, the two current exhibitors are Walter Price (Pearl Lines) and Olga Balema (Computer). Both are New York-based artists born in the 1980s but Price is the more engaging. His works in chunks of colour combine painting and drawing on surfaces such as paper and wood. They are playful yet provide a thoughtful commentary on urban living and identity. Images of suspended hats creates the feel of a crowded city street.
Born in Georgia but living in Brooklyn, Price held a studio residency at the CAC in early 2020. During that time, he experimented with scale and material to create new, large paintings. Returning to New York during the lockdown, he created smaller works in confined conditions, using his existing paints. There is sometimes an overt lockdown theme to these works, such as the striking Where’s your mask, fool (2020) in which an oversized haunting figure looks down on a person with no face covering. But for me, the themes of alienation from other people and from the natural world were the more subtle forms of pandemic-thinking across the two exhibition rooms.
In the first, larger room, oil paintings on paper each portray a collection of images reduced or simplified to almost child-like forms. The painted images are spaced out on the paper, so that there is a large expanse of white on each one – mirroring the vast whiteness of the CAC itself. For me, the white spaces give these works a poster-like effect owing more to the world of pop art and disposable images than the art salon. It takes time for the eye to wander over each of the seemingly disjointed parts to understand the theme of the picture as a whole. The brush strokes on first glance seem to have been quickly executed, in unpremeditated fashion. Upon closer inspection, these are carefully crafted works. Step into the sun (2020) is typical of the deconstructed forms: a large foot (the person taking the step of the title) is placed in isolation above a yellow sun and a slab of green grass.
Smaller acrylics on paper are dominated by black paint. These figurative works with an urban feel represent black men. I did not see any women but there was an affecting picture of a child holding an adult’s hand before crossing the road (Always look both ways; 2020). A small series of bodies (Bod deese; 2015) creates a corporeal feel with simple curves.
The second exhibition room is devoted to small colourful works with paint covering the entirety of the surface – sometimes thickly laid and so that the images intrude outwards such as the rain clouds in Hold the umbrella tight while viewing my rain and Fate of the animals #2. These paintings feature high-backed sofas, reminding me of the inside (and sofa-based!) living that we have all experienced during the pandemic. Several showed wide landscapes and nature as if dreaming of outdoor freedom. A human house is like a cage: we live in spaces that intrude on nature but we remain constrained. In this room too, there are repeated but different portraits of a black woman’s head on pale backgrounds. In Is there a fundamental lack of internal volition? (2020), the head is symbolically spattered with white paint, returning to the theme of whiteness that is both artistic and political.
Many of the paintings in this second room seem to have a high degree of abstraction; but on further viewing, faces, sun, grass, water and clouds emerge. Combining the built and natural environments, they emphasise for me the way in which we have been couped up in lockdown and have had to resort to memories or imagination to reconstruct the larger world.
A film narrated by the artist invites us to place our own experiences onto the work. The artist has given the exhibition to us as a gift. I suppose it is only natural to look at the images through the prism of lockdown but I enjoyed the exhibition immensely. It is free, local and large enough that you don’t have to come within 2 metres of anyone if you don’t want to. What’s not to like?
Sorry that we cannot provide images but you can have a taster at camdenartcentre.org/walter-price-pearl-lines/.